A different VFA

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - May 10, 2021 - 12:00am

The renewed tension in the overlapping maritime territorial claims of countries surrounding the entire stretch of South China Sea (SCS) have brought into the picture again the 1957 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of the Philippines with the United States (US). Under this mother treaty is the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the renewal or abrogation of which is in the hands of President Rodrigo Duterte.

In February last year, the Philippines served to the US Embassy in Manila a notice of VFA termination. It would have been effective in December last year. However, upon orders of President Duterte, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. subsequently notified the US Embassy in Nov. 11 of the same year. “In light of political and other developments” in the SCS region, the termination of the VFA was suspended for six months.

While not a party to the SCS maritime territorial dispute among country claimants, the US, however, invokes the international freedom of navigation under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). The Philippines, along with China, and the US are among the signatory parties to the UNCLOS.

During our Kapihan sa Manila Bay zoom webinar last month, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. who is the vice chairman of the National Task Force on the West Philippines Sea (NTF-WPS) reassured the Filipino people on the enhanced border patrol and surveillance to protect our country’s sovereign rights around the disputed maritime territories. It is in compliance with the policy directives of President Duterte who chairs the NTF-WPS in asserting the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) decision in favor of the Philippines in June 2016. The Hague-based PCA ruling thrashed the Chinese historical “nine-dash” claims over the entire stretch of South China Sea. Beijing though refused to recognize it, a situation that President Duterte has to deal with since Day One of his administration.

Fast forward. Esperon strongly dismissed criticisms and accusations that President Duterte has compromised our country’s WPS claims as a “debt of gratitude” to China’s “vaccine diplomacy.” Esperon swore nothing had been exchanged for Beijing’s donations of Sinovac and Sinopharm anti-COVID vaccines to the Philippines.

In his back-to-back televised address last week, President Duterte digressed anew into rants against critics of his policy pronouncements on the WPS at the meeting at Malacañang of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF).

At the start of the IATF meeting Thursday night, the President ordered the return of 1,000 doses of Sinopharm donated to the government. This was after the Chief Executive came under fire for taking the Sinopharm jab. Hewing to his choice to get his jab from China-made vaccine, Sinopharm, however, has no emergency use authorization (EUA) yet from our own Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The presidential outbursts took away much more important update reports at the IATF about the arrival of the 2,030,400 vaccine doses more of AstraZeneca from the COVAX Facility of the World Health Organization (WHO). Actually, it was first announced during the IATF meeting at Malacañang the previous night by chief implementer and designated “vaccine czar” Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr.

They indeed arrived in Manila last Saturday. According to Galvez, the bigger volume were in addition to the 526,000 AstraZeneca doses from COVAX that have already been rolled out in our country last March.

So far, the country has received a total of 7,571,000 of anti-COVID vaccines. These included the 4 million Coronavac doses from Sinovac of China purchased by the Department of Health (DOH) and 1 million doses donated by Beijing, and the 15,000 Sputnik-V doses of Gamaleya bought from Russia.

During the same IATF meeting Wednesday night, FDA director-general Dr. Eric Domingo informed the President they have, so far, issued EUAs to seven vaccines. Pfizer was the first one to get EUA from our FDA, and the others followed in this order: AstraZeneca, Sputnik-V, Sinovac, Bharat Biotech, Janssen and Moderna.

Finally, after initial setback in the past, the vaccine made by the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer is also set for delivery to the Philippines. In fact, Galvez disclosed that 193,000 doses of Pfizer will arrive today also coming from the COVAX. Galvez cited there will be 2.2 million doses of Pfizer coming in equal batches later this month and in June. Galvez added the other vaccines from American pharma companies Moderna and Janssen are also due for delivery, though specific amounts are not yet finalized.

Galvez credited Philippine ambassador Jose Romualdez for having secured the help of the US State Department to facilitate the previously stalled Pfizer delivery to the Philippines. The US is the biggest donor to the COVAX Facility that have been assisting poorer countries like the Philippines in the procurement of anti-COVID vaccines for at least 20% of each nation’s population.

“And we are very happy with the support of the US that positively they will increase delivery of Moderna and Pfizer,” Galvez enthused.

Is it coincidental the US government is much more helpful to the Philippines with the suspension of VFA termination due to lapse next month?

This brought to mind a wisecrack made by Esperon when he was the featured guest in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum last month. Esperon noted a number of top American government officials under the new administration of US President Joe Biden have reiterated they will faithfully comply with the US commitments under MDT, especially in case of any foreign aggressions against the Philippines that included areas of disputed maritime territories at the WPS.

“We even have the V.F.A. with them, Vaccines From America,” Esperon punned with a poker face.

The matter though whether to extend or not the VFA effectivity remains nebulous as of this time. But as things are turning out, we see a different VFA gradually coming in to play in our country’s vaccine security.

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